'It's nuts': Amid uncertainty, York County forms committee on voting machines
Facing a state mandate to replace its 700 voting machines, York County recently created a committee "move the process along" — if somewhat reluctantly.
"We'd prefer not to have to do it at all," county Commissioner Chris Reilly said. "It's nuts. But you gotta do what you gotta do."
The issue stems from an order Gov. Tom Wolf issued in April mandating counties improve election security by replacing their voting machines with models that include a verifiable paper trail.
The new machines must be in place by Dec. 31, 2019, in time for the 2020 presidential election.
The Department of State has said it's strongly considering decertifying current machines to enforce the mandate, as state law requires machines be vetted and certified to be legally used in an election.
Certifying more machines: The Department of State gave officials the chance to test some of the new machines Wednesday, Dec. 12, at its fourth voting machine expo of the year at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Cumberland County.
Five voting machine vendors were there, two of which have machines certified.
Another expo was held Thursday, Dec. 13, in Doylestown, Bucks County, and one will be held in Erie at a date yet to be announced. There also will be more early next year, the department has said.
Vista, California-based Unisyn Voting Solutions has two machines that are certified, and Omaha, Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software have a full suite of machines — consisting of four models — that are certified.
The Department of State expects more machines to make the cut by the end of the year, as several others are in the process of being vetted, officials have said.
No York County officials attended the Dickinson College expo or three events earlier this year.
But Reilly said the county did bring in two certified vendors for an interview in October, and they're "not going to string out the process" much longer.
The commissioner said the county has created an ad-hoc committee of Reilly, acting voting and elections office director Sally Kohlbus and three information technology employees to "move the process forward."
Covering the cost: Reilly's reluctance stems solely from the funding issue, he emphasized.
He said the county's cost likely will be between $6 million and $8 million, but local officials are waiting for more machines to be certified before deciding how to pay for them.
Pennsylvania received $13.5 million — $14.1 million after the state's 5 percent match —earlier this year from a federal government spending package to enhance election security nationwide. York County received $500,000 from the package.
The federal government hasn't yet offered additional funding, although Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, has said he's working on pressing Congress to provide another wave.
Recently, Wolf also said he's asking the Legislature to provide at least half the needed funding, although local officials and legislators are skeptical.
County Administrator Mark Derr said officials are hopeful the county comes up with some funding, "but we're not holding our breath."
State Sen.-elect Kristin Phillips-Hill, who in November captured the 28th District Senate seat that was previously held by Scott Wagner, agreed and said she's not so sure Wolf's approach will work.
"It's essential that we preserve and protect the integrity of elections," Phillips-Hill said. "But financial challenges are numerous. We're concerned about how the governor would like to pay for this."
The soon-to-be senator cited a recent report from Pennsylvania's Independent Fiscal Office that predicted the state would end next fiscal year up to $1.7 billion in the hole.
Republican Sen. John Gordner, representing Columbia, Luzerne, Montour, Northumberland and Snyder counties, has taken the opposition further by proposing pushing back the 2020 deadline, citing the IFO report and other reasons.
On Dec. 3, Gordner released a legislation memo criticizing the governor's state funding desires and announced he'd be bringing legislation into the new session to combat the deadline, citing high costs and too short of a deadline.
It hasn't yet been assigned a bill number, nor does it recommend a specific extended deadline. But Gordner makes it clear he doesn't like the idea of the legislature putting up more than $60 million.
"Election integrity and security is of the utmost of importance," the memo reads. "However, I do not feel that the method to accomplish this, as laid out by the governor, is in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians."
Phillips-Hill didn't say whether or not she supported pushing back the deadline, but Reilly said he'd welcome any sort of extension.
Wolf, along with other high-ranking officials, are more optimistic about getting the Legislature to put up funding.
"Gov. Wolf is confident that bipartisan experts agree that our systems need to be more secure, including the federal Department of Homeland Security," Wolf spokesman JJ Abbott said. "He will continue working with the Legislature to provide support to the counties."
Jonathan Marks, commissioner of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, said he supports Wolf's push for new voting machines, but funding from the state is in the hands of the Legislature.
"That's a political negotiation," he said. "We're doing our part, which is mostly education. We think the General Assembly should partner with the administration to come up with funding. Elections have gotten a lot more expensive."
Marks added the counties don't have the same relief they did from the 2002 Help America Vote Act, a measure passed following the disputed 2000 president election that created a nearly $4 billion fund to help states improve election security.
York County put its share of Pennsylvania's portion toward a $2.1 million purchase of 700 Sequoia AVC Edge voting machines in 2006, which are now widely condemned as out-of-date and lacking essential security options.
Funding options: As of now, the county is leaning toward using a bond issue, essentially a loan, to pay the costs of the machines over time.
At the expo, Daniel Chalupsky, a representative from Unisyn, said the company's FreedomVote Tablet, a machine on which residents vote, and Voting Optical Scan, which records the votes and provides a paper trail, would cost roughly $9,000 if paired together.
But the prices vary greatly based on the quantity of machines a county would like to purchase and whether they'd like to rent, lease or buy the machines, Chalupsky said.
He added purchasing 1,000 machines would cost around $9 million, which puts York's predictions in the right ballpark.
Other funding options in the county have recently been floated as well.
For example, the county sold its Pleasant Acres Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in June to a for-profit entity for $31.9 million.
After paying off the former county workers' post-employment benefits and pensions and subdividing the property, $2.6 million remains from the sale.
Although Derr said it's "up in the air right now" where every remaining penny will go, he said it's possible some of it could be used toward the cost of voting machines.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.